Doublex

A Cinematic Flood of Pleasure

I was obsessed with Intervention. Now I know I was looking in a mirror at my own love addiction.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kema Keur/Flickr CC.

I started watching the reality TV show Intervention nearly a decade ago when I was in my early 20s, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a view of the watermelon-colored mountains. I had a job at a diner serving green chile cheeseburgers to out-of-towners. My boyfriend Jason and I were from out of town, too—we’d moved from Chicago to Albuquerque to “have an adventure,” or so we told anybody who asked. Mostly our adventures consisted of doing ordinary things under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Getting stoned and observing Venus’ flytraps in the home-and-garden section of Walmart. Taking pain pills and watching Quentin Tarantino movies. Drinking gin and shooting a BB gun at Sprite cans along the desolate frontage road outside our apartment.

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On the nights when we got drunk and high and watched Intervention, I called this “irony.” Each episode of Intervention, now in its 15th season, follows one or two addicts as they chase the substance or compulsive behavior that, shown in graphic detail, is ruining their lives. The show surprises them with an intervention from friends and loved ones and a professional interventionist, who lays out a course of treatment. Meanwhile, the family cries and resolves to stop enabling the addict if he or she chooses to reject treatment and continue using.

Watching the show was a twisted form of reassurance, a validation of my own life choices. I wasn’t homeless, like some of Intervention’s subjects. I had never injected anything into a vein. Drinking before going to work would never have occurred to me. Against the pitch black of rock bottom I saw on TV, I thought I was a glow-in-the-dark star. Somebody special.

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The view from the couch where Jason and I watched the show together: heirloom rattan bookshelves filled with hundreds of my books that he threatened to take out to the parking lot and burn if I left him; a fist-sized hole in the bathroom door made a week after he threw me against our refrigerator; his motorcycle helmet on the kitchen counter. The same helmet he would be wearing when he died in an accident a few years later.

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It has taken me almost a decade to realize that I wasn’t watching a window into lives that were worse than my own. I was staring into a mirror. My drug wasn’t alcohol or pot. My drug was Jason.

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Jason was a dead ringer for James Dean and sang Johnny Cash songs with perfect pitch. Strangers often stopped us in public to ask what movie they recognized him from.

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Having grown up in the South, he said pin for pen and bin for been. He knew about places and things I’d never heard of before. When we played hangman, he gave me the word hydrofluorocarbon. On the flip side of his charm and intelligence, Jason could be mercurial, volatile, manipulative, and cold. More than one of our fights ended with him pulling over to the side of the road and threatening to leave me there. As a child, he’d been shuffled between his divorced parents, neither of whom ever seemed to pay enough attention to him. They shipped him off to treatment centers for anger management problems. I would be the one to fix him, I thought. I would take care of him, if only he would let me.

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Our romance was quicksand. Less than six months passed between the night we met at a community college audition for Medea in the middle of a record-breaking snowstorm and the morning we left Chicago for Albuquerque. I lost my virginity to Jason after years of wanting to get rid of it, fearing the longer it took to lose, the more undesirable I was. One night at a party that got busted for underage drinking, the police wouldn’t let me take responsibility for Jason, even though I was sober and over 21 and by then we were living together. They said he would have to call his dad or sleep in the station, because it wasn’t like I was his “wife.” When Jason heard this, he dropped to one knee in the living room and proposed to me in front of everyone. The cops gave a slow clap. Of course I said yes. They let me take him home.

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There were red flags even before we moved. I was working as a piano and singing teacher when I met Jason, and he followed me to a statewide music competition where my young students were performing. All day, whenever I would stop to congratulate my students or speak to their parents, Jason would stand behind me and unsnap my bra through the back of my silk dress.

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During one of our fights (I’ve long forgotten what any of these fights were about), he slapped me in the face while I was driving a car. I posted about the scene in my Livejournal, and my friends’ concern turned into anger with me for staying with this guy. It became clear to me that I would just have to stop posting the truth to my online diary. The only solution I saw was to move hundreds of miles away from people who cared about me—people I could only see as obstacles, preventing me from getting high on what I wanted.

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* * *

“Addiction is defined as the inability to resist a habit, an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a behavior regardless of the consequences,” Rachel Resnick writes in her memoir Love Junkie. “I’m an addict.” Just like a drug addict or an alcoholic, a love addict may experience an inability to abstain consistently, impairment in behavioral control, craving or “hunger,” and diminished recognition of problems with his or her behavior and relationships.

When we see people trapped in self-destructive cycles, whether in life or on screen, we can’t help but wonder:

If he’s so concerned about how much he’s drinking, why doesn’t he just stop?

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If she knows she probably won’t survive another overdose, why does she keep shooting up?

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Why does she stay with that asshole?

Like many people, I understood the basic mechanics of addiction—I just didn’t know I could get hooked on another person. Addictive drugs or processes confuse the brain’s natural reward system, flooding the brain with dopamine and rewriting the circuitry so that the brain remembers that rush of pleasure and motivates us to continually chase after it, even as our tolerance builds and we require more and more to achieve the same high.

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With Jason, the flood of pleasure was cinematic. He was James Dean and I was Natalie Wood, or he was Marlon Brando and I was Vivien Leigh, or I was Audrey Tautou on the back of a motorbike at the end of Amélie. Of course people on the outside couldn’t understand why I stayed with him—because they didn’t know how good it felt on the inside. Though I’d dated other men, this time, the stakes were much higher. If I lost him, I thought I would lose the part of myself that was interesting and original, worth loving. I was more afraid that someone would convince me to leave Jason than I was of staying with him, even after the few times he was physically violent.

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Today people like to ask: Where were your parents during all of this? I think they assume that since my mom is a clinical psychologist, she should have known how to save me from my own destructive choices. Or maybe they think they know better—their own daughter or son, or sister or brother, would never become enmeshed in the kind of relationship I had with Jason. I don’t blame my parents for not doing more to rescue me. But I do wonder if things would have been different if there had been some kind of Intervention-style confrontation as dramatic as the relationship itself. When we told my parents we were moving to Albuquerque, my mom was grim and quiet.

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“You don’t think this is a good idea, do you,” I said.

“No,” she said. “I don’t.”

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Casey Muir-Taylor/Flickr CC.

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As a going-away present, she gave me two self-help books, one on anxiety and another on anger. She talked to me on the phone on the night I finally decided to leave him and picked me up from the airport, but within 24 hours I flew back. Jason had convinced me the reason our relationship wasn’t working was because I needed to be medicated. When I couldn’t get enough benzodiazepines in Albuquerque, my mom helped by calling the psychiatrist I saw in high school.

Pia Mellody, an expert on love addiction, writes that “people fall into love addiction because of the unhealed pain from childhood abandonment,” which I thought was bullshit the first time I read it. My parents didn’t abandon me. More than once, they let me move back home as an adult.

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But then I started to put some pieces together. I’d been suicidal at 13 and no one—not my parents, not a teacher or a counselor at school—had noticed the signs of depression. I sent a goodbye email to a friend I met on the internet, and he called my local police, who alerted my middle school and my parents. I was put into therapy and medicated, but I always wondered why no one had recognized my symptoms sooner. When Jason told me I was sick and would probably need medication forever, in a way he was validating the wound of my younger self. By persuading me that our relationship problems were caused by my mental illness, Jason convinced me that he was the one who saw me for who I really was, which alienated me even further from my family.

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In Albuquerque, watching Intervention, I cried along with the families losing their children, and I also cried with the addicts who felt abandoned and misunderstood. When I tried to stop drinking and smoking so much pot because I knew it would worsen my depression, Jason told me he missed how fun I used to be. He lost one job after another, and I supported us on my waitressing tips. The antidepressants killed my appetite. I lost weight. My hands shook when I poured the coffee at work. But as bad as it ever got, there were still glimmers of beauty: taking a road trip to White Sands National Monument, breaking hot sopapillas with our hands and dipping them in honey, watching hot air balloons launch at dawn.

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After six months, our lease was up, my savings account was depleted, and we each moved back in with our parents. The withdrawal was incredibly intense. My life felt bleak, empty, and pointless without the daily drama. I slept with my phone on my pillow, waiting for Jason to call in the middle of the night, needing me for one reason or another. If only I could figure out how to solve the puzzle of our relationship, make the reality match the fantasy in my mind—but I failed every time I tried.

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* * *

Intervention first aired in 2005 and won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program in 2009. Last year, a Vulture piece by Kelsey Osgood asked if, after 13 seasons, Intervention had “become too ubiquitous for its own good,” since its production depends on addicts not recognizing the show’s main trio of interventionists or any telltale signs of what Osgood called its “now-iconic premise.” In 2012, Intervention’s viewership was around 2 million, but a recent episode had only 613,000 viewers. For the sake of comparison, Rehab Addict, airing the same night, got over a million. It’s not surprising that someone would rather spend a Sunday evening with a show about a woman “addicted” to home restoration than a show about a woman whose “heroin and meth abuse [have] created a tornado … that threatens her life.”

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Of all the TV shows I love, Intervention is the only show that no one I know will watch with me today. It’s too dark, too depressing, my friends say, the same friends who came over for the Breaking Bad finale. I can only watch Intervention when my current boyfriend is out somewhere else.

Even with its reduced viewership, Intervention has a devoted fan base that obsessively follows the outcomes of the lives revealed on TV. Intervention Directory is a fan site for the show that includes a memorial page for post-intervention deaths; the current count is 19. The database of episodes is organized by addiction (alcohol, bath salts, benzodiazepines), traumatic “trigger” (physical abuse, sexual abuse, death of loved one), and “most” categories (most disturbing episodes, most likable addicts). Among 200 episodes, I can’t find a single one about love addiction.

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Co-dependent relationships that fuel substance addiction are a common theme, however, and now there’s a new spinoff called Intervention: Codependent on the Lifetime channel, starring interventionist and recovered addict Kristina Wandzilak. “The couples I work with have a toxic love fueled by addiction,” she explains in the opening to each episode. The twist on this spinoff is not that there will be an intervention but that the addicts must attend treatment separately, without their partner.

I recently watched the first episode, in which a young woman named Paige describes going from “straight-A, churchgoing athlete” to “a low-life junkie,” hooked on heroin and her boyfriend Alex.

“My relationship with Paige has been a loopy roller coaster: a lot of highs, a lot of lows,” Alex says. “But I’m in love with her and want to be with her 24 hours a day.”

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“Having both of them together is like an atomic bomb,” his sister tells Wandzilak.

Wandzilak places them in separate treatment programs, but Paige runs away from hers and surprises Alex at a court hearing for drug charges.

“When I saw Paige, my heart stopped for a second, and I got boosted with this burst of energy,” Alex says, shyly grinning at the floor, as if trying to hide his genuine joy in seeing her, when he knows Wandzilak would rather he be angry. As I watched, I knew what he was feeling intimately. Seeing Paige again was the sign he needed that his obsession with her was more powerful than the promise of sobriety.

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The day after court, Alex leaves his treatment program to call Paige from a payphone, knowing that leaving the premises will mean he is not welcome back. The two are now engaged.

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Of course they are, I thought. Many episodes of Intervention end the same way. After the emotional intervention, and even after treatment seems to be going well and a fresh start is at hand, so many episodes end with relapse. Finally I understood the message I had absorbed from years of watching: not that there is hope for all of us, no matter how close we are to reaching bottom, but that I had permission to stay hooked on Jason, because my chances of moving on were so slim. Why would anyone go through the pain of changing if she was almost certain she’d end up right where she began?

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I saw Jason for the last time in June 2011. It was the last time I had to reassure my mom and my friends, Things will be different this time. Of course I was wrong. He drank wine from morning until night and snorted all my benzos. I would discover they were gone when I packed a suitcase for his funeral, six weeks later.

I knew on that visit it was finally time to get off the roller coaster—seeing him that last time finally made me recognize how stable my life was without him in it. But what I’ll never know is if some day I would have relapsed, just to feel the rush of one more ride, if Jason had survived.

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